Writing, Arts & Entertainment

Discussion With Marie Howe: "What the Living Do"

Billy Collins

Lesson time 11:56 min

Learn how what began as a letter to her brother became one of Marie’s most acclaimed poems with “What the Living Do.”

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Topics include: Discussion With Marie Howe: "What the Living Do"


[MUSIC PLAYING] - Next, Marie and I are going to each- we're going to look at one of our own poems and talk about it. I've never done this with anybody before, and I have no idea what's going to happen. But Marie's going to start, and like, as in a workshop, she's going to read her poem first, and then we'll say something about it. And her poem is from the book "What the Living Do," and it's the title poem. - Thank you, Billy. You know, I want to say since I was talking about the difficulty of writing sometimes, and this poem came at the end of a long writing day. I'd been writing all day, working on four or five different poems at once. Finally, I just pushed everything aside. I said, I'm not going to write a poem. - Yeah. - I'm just going to write a letter to my dead brother. - Yeah. - And this is what happened. What the living do. My brother's name is John. Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days. Some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It's winter again. The sky is a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through the open living room windows, because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking. I've been thinking, this is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve. I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush. This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning. What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come, and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call, or not call, a letter, a kiss. We want more, and more, and then more of it. But there are moments walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep from my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless. I am living. I remember you. - Such a powerful poem. I talked the other day about that poems often are preceded by other poems that are never completed. You might write for an hour or two, and nothing's happening. But the poem that takes place after that, you couldn't write if you hadn't done that scribbling before. So many things about this poem. It does-- it does feel inspired. It does-- the way it kind of jumps forward into-- like "for weeks now, every day, Johnny, yesterday." It's kind of all around in time, but there are moments. But there's a combination of the every day, particularly, the speaker being left alone, and unable to fix the sink, and thinking some utensil probably fell down. They're not sure. The dishes are piled up. The living-- she can't deal with the living room heat and all...

About the Instructor

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.

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Billy Collins

In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.

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